With the exception of several semester-length visiting professorships, all of my ten years of teaching has been at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Over the past six years as a full-time member of the faculty I have taught both design studios and lecture courses dealing with contemporary urbanism and the evolution of the American city. Several of these studios—including the one that I am teaching now, and the one from which I have selected examples of work—have been joint studios involving students from the architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design departments. I strongly believe in the studio as a place for collaboration among the design disciplines, particularly when speculating upon the nature of contemporary urbanism.
Under the auspices of an SOM Foundation Fellowship I would advance a long-standing objective to prepare material for a book on the evolution of the American city. The manifestations of form and attitudes toward urban life that are characteristic of the American city have been the focus of my research and much of my teaching. I now need a concentrated period of time to augment and synthesize the material that I have been gathering. A sabbatical and the support of the SOM Foundation Fellowship would provide such an opportunity. The following describes my interest in the American city and is, therefore, a kind of point of departure.
Observing European society at the dawn of the twentieth century, Oswald Spengler was convinced that all great cultures were city-born. Across the ocean, there has always been less certainty, about where great cultures are best nurtured and in what kinds of cities they flourish. As if responding to Spengler, Louis Sullivan wrote, “The great minds may go to the great cities, but they are not born and bred in the great cities . . . for the formation of a great mind solitude is prerequisite.” By contrast, Americans such as Henry James have been troubled by having the “instincts” but not the “forms of a high old civilization,” forms most readily found within venerable old cities. Others find much evidence of the physical concentration indicative of cities, but little corresponding commitment, “a mountain range of evidence without manifesto” Rem Koolhaas has suggested of Manhattan. Still others have struggled with a question prompted by Spengler’s assertion: contemplating the nature of their cities while remaining intrigued by those of their ancestors, Americans have wondered whether all great cultures produce their own forms of cities, and if so, what should these be for their culture?
Emerson alluded to one possibility with his wish for “rural strength and religion” along with “city facility and polish.” The success—and failures—of our boundless metropolitan “suburban” landscapes attest to the seriousness and longevity of this desire for a new kind of habitation in places imagined to forever remain between the extremes of artificial sophistication (found in cities) and of innocence or virtuousness (maintained amidst arcadian surrounding). The consequences of this search for a middle state prompts contemporary observers such as Irving Kristol to label ours and “urban civilization without cities,” a rather frightening yet hauntingly accurate description of many of our city’s rapidly expanding peripheries.
It seems to me that ignoring the “cityscapes” of Las Colinas, or Tyson’s Corner, or the Houston outside of its perimeter beltway, while placing great faith in the occasional evidence of gentrification within the older sections of several mostly eastern seaboard cities, is unlikely to bring our profession any great insights about contemporary urbanism. It is to such “cityscapes” that I would like to turn my research under the auspices of an SOM Foundation Fellowship. In addition to providing time and support for organizing and editing the material which I have been gathering for the past five years, the fellowship would enable me to travel to and to spend a period of time in such “cityscapes,” and use these trips as springboards to investigate certain paradigms regarding the modern American city.
Possibilities—and paradigms—would be:
Krieger, Alex. “The American City Prior and (Possibly) Following the Pandemic.“ 50th Anniversary of Urban Design Lecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, MA, September 24, 2020.
Krieger, Alex. City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.
A sweeping history of American cities and towns, and the utopian aspirations that shaped them, by one of America’s leading urban planners and scholars.
The first European settlers saw America as a paradise regained. The continent seemed to offer a God-given opportunity to start again and build the perfect community. Those messianic days are gone. But as Alex Krieger argues in City on a Hill, any attempt at deep understanding of how the country has developed must recognize the persistent and dramatic consequences of utopian dreaming. Even as ideals have changed, idealism itself has for better and worse shaped our world of bricks and mortar, macadam, parks, and farmland. As he traces this uniquely American story from the Pilgrims to the “smart city,” Krieger delivers a striking new history of our built environment.
The Puritans were the first utopians, seeking a New Jerusalem in the New England villages that still stand as models of small-town life. In the Age of Revolution, Thomas Jefferson dreamed of citizen farmers tending plots laid out across the continent in a grid of enlightened rationality. As industrialization brought urbanization, reformers answered emerging slums with a zealous crusade of grand civic architecture and designed the vast urban parks vital to so many cities today. The twentieth century brought cycles of suburban dreaming and urban renewal—one generation’s utopia forming the next one’s nightmare—and experiments as diverse as Walt Disney’s EPCOT, hippie communes, and Las Vegas.
Krieger’s compelling and richly illustrated narrative reminds us, as we formulate new ideals today, that we chase our visions surrounded by the glories and failures of dreams gone by.
is Research Professor in Practice of Urban Design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where he has taught since 1977. He served as Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design (1998–2004, 2006–2007, 2019–2020), Director of the Urban Design Program (1990–2001), and as Associate Chair of the Department of Architecture (1984–1989). Krieger is also a principal at NBBJ, a global design practice. He was founding principal of Chan Krieger Sieniewicz until their merger with NBBJ in 2009. Since 1984, he has provided architecture, urban design, and urban planning services to a broad array of clients in numerous cities worldwide, focusing primarily on educational, institutional, healthcare, and public projects in complex urban settings. He is the author of City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present (Harvard University Press, 2019); Urban Design (with William Saunders, University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Remaking the Urban Waterfront (with Bonnie Fisher et al., Urban Land Institute, 2004); Mapping Boston (with David Cobb and Amy Turner, MIT Press, 1999); Towns and Town-Making Principles (with Andrés Duany et al., Rizzoli, 1991); and A Design Primer for Cities and Towns (with Anne Mackin, Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, 1989).